Book Review: Boeing 787 Dreamliner

As if I was not getting enough of anaviation fix at Farnborough last week, I decided to read the Kindle version of’Boeing 787 Dreamliner’ by journalist Guy Norris and photographer Mark Wagnerto help me decompress after the show at night.

Norris, I am told, formerly worked forFlight – he lists a number of past and present Flight journalists in the acknowledgements- and is now at a rival publication.

For a good understanding of the issues andchallenges involved in developing a modern aircraft this is a great read.  As it was published in 2009, it misses morerecent developments in the programme and the 787′s service entry in late 2011.

I found the early chapters mostfascinating, because here Norris discusses the Sonic Cruiser at length. The787, it turns out, was originally a ‘reference’ type against which airlinescould assess the Sonic Cruiser concept. While aviation fans no doubt regretthat the Sonic Cruiser never saw the light of day – that thing sure did lookcool – the airlines simply didn’t want it.

The book also sheds light on Boeing’sdecision to forgo further development of the 747 series in the 1990s. Again,lukewarm airlines.

Norris does a superb job explaining why the 787 is special: therevolutionary use of composites, the aircraft’s innovative use of fly by wiretechnology, and its space age power system. He also spends a good deal of timediscussing the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 and GE GEnx engines and how this pair waschosen over Pratt & Whitney’s alternative.

Norris also captures the heady optimism ofthe 787′s early days. One gem is Boeing’s promise to the Chinese carriers thatall of them would have the 787 in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Oops!

Like a horror novel in which things justkeep getting worse for the protagonists, the programme’s problems start tomount: unfinished subassemblies arrive unlabelled in Seattle, there is a severeshortage of fasteners, and quality control becomes a major problem. Boeing eventually sorted allthis out, but only at great cost to its prestige and after serious delays.

Although ‘Boeing 787 Dreamliner’ is asatisfying read, it would have been good to learn more about Boeing’sinteractions with airline customers as programme delays became legion. Whatwere customers saying to Boeing executives? How, specifically, did the 787′slate entry hurt the airlines’ plans for specific routes? What compromises wasBoeing forced to make to keep customers waiting?

Given that the 787 has yet to enter servicefor most of the carriers who will eventually fly it, these questions are stillvery sensitive. Most of the key players involved in developing, selling, andbuying the aircraft are still very much in play. Thus, reminiscing aboutmeeting room battles is not something 787 stakeholders will be keen to do forseveral years. 

By the time they are willing to open up, the787 will be a reliable and ubiquitous work horse, warranting barely a glance asit slides up to the boarding gate. Boeing, Airbus, and the world’s otherairframers will have moved on to other developmental dramas.

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